Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Sport, depression and the death of Robert Enke

There is a strong fascist bias in our relationship to professional athletes. We expect them to be paradigms of physical and psychological strength. These are the men and women who have actively trained away the weaknesses of mind and body that most of us passively accept. They have achieved a state of perfection that sets them apart as superhuman. It is this we admire in them. It is this that fills stadiums, sells tickets and clinches sponsorship deals. We want them to wear a carapace of invincibility.

But should they show signs of frailty or weakness then, public adulation can quickly turn to disappointment. And, worse still, should this become a sustained weakness then the athlete will be exposed to an intense scrutiny under an exacting audience that usually results in them being expelled from the divine sporting pantheon. They fall to earth as figures of public pity or ridicule. Chad Harbach’s critically acclaimed novel, The Art of Fielding, nails this tension through the rise and fall of his baseball protagonist, Henry Skrimshander. He writes:

We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his in public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.

This year’s William Hill Sports book of the year, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng is a disturbing account of how public and professional expectations can place terrible pressures on sportspeople. While the rewards for those who excel in a particular sport may be enormous (both in terms of public acclaim and wealth), this can turn into a Faustian pact, with men and women trading their souls and, in some cases, losing their lives for the promise of success.

On 10 November 2009, Robert Enke, threw himself in front of a passing train. He was a goalkeeper for the German football team and would probably have represented his country at the 2010 World Cup. From an early age he was recognised as being an outstanding talent: physically strong, intelligent, with an instinctive sense of space, excellent reactions and a radar like sensitivity to the position of players and the ball. He was admired by both peers and fans as a formidable goalkeeping presence. But Robert Enke was also a man who suffered from severe bouts of clinical depression which he hid for fear of looking weak. After his first game for Fenerbahce in Turkey went disastrously wrong, Enke wrote in his diary:

11.08.2003. I’m finished. We lost the game 0-3. Didn’t look good from the first goal. After that I was very nervous in the second half. Was mocked by some of the fans...Would like to get away from Istanbul, do a proper course of therapy at last. At any rate, it can’t go on. Understood yesterday that I’m simply not up to the demands...Terri (his wife) just rang and had to put the phone down again to cry. I feel helpless and anxious. I don’t leave the hotel room, I’m afraid of people’s eyes. I’d just like to live without anxiety and nerves.

The emotional honesty of Enke’s diary entries provide valuable insights into the nature of depression itself – the feelings of isolation, anxiety and inertia. Reng gives us a clinical glimpse inside Enke’s head. But we also see how his position as an international goalkeeper compounds his anguish. The goalkeeper is the last line of defence. Everything is literally in his hands. Enke’s Barcelona team-mate, Victor Valdes talks of the goalie’s “special sort of suffering”. The goalkeeper is at once part of a team and a figure who stands alone. Tactical and defence errors may result in a goal but it is the goalkeeper who lets the goal in. He must live with this failure.

One psychiatrist who cared for Enke told him that his problem was that he had never learnt to live with his mistakes. He reminded the goalkeeper that “a mistake wasn’t the whole game, a game was never the whole season, a season wasn’t a career. A career isn’t a life.” Enke could accept the principle intellectually but he was incapable of integrating it into his personality. “If you could have my head for half an hour,” he told his wife, “you’d know why I go mad.”

Like so many sportspeople, Enke found it impossible to admit to his psychological and emotional difficulties. He kept burying them for fear of being outed as weak. This contributed to his unhappiness and mental dissolution. But recently some professional athletes have been willing to talk about how the pressures of their particular sport has played into their feelings of depression. Respected figures such as Marcus Trescothick, Jonny Wilkinson and Stan Collymore have spoken openly about the crushing self-doubt and emotional turmoil that they have battled with. They have brought this hidden subject out into the open. While we may fantasise that our sporting heroes are invincible, such brave testimonies remind us that sportsmen and women are not immune from the fragility of the human condition.

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng, Yellow Jersey Press, London, 2011


  1. Enke'scase and of the fictional character both point to a very sad fact. Whilst society is accepting - well almost, of physical weaknesses or disabilities, we have a long way to go before we are at a point where we are as accepting of psychological problems/illnesses.

  2. most definately, i agree with simon. There is a stigma associated with depression generally, although as more and more high profile people in the media talk about their mental health, it is coming to the forefront a little more and becoming a little easier to talk about. Having said that i suspect that Enke was a personality type 'A', high achiever, with no room for failure, thus leading to his being incapable of accepting that he is only human. Suicide is so difficult to comprehend, and is so very sad.

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  4. A really interesting post (sorry I have just picked it up). Whilst it is always possible to track individual tragedies and attempt to make generalisations the few systematic studies that have been done suggest that elite athletes have the same level of general anxiety disorders than the general population and a LOWER incidence of major depression. See the link below for a study on over 2,000 elite French athletes:


    My sports psychology friends suggest that these statistics might be very different if the subjects gave up sport i.e. without sport filling their lives the rate of depression increases.

    Depressives always find ways of feeling they are failures in life. They don't need the crowd behind a goal pointing it out to them. The low self esteem comes from inside.

    But - as you eloquently say - the real problem is how does sport react to this situation? In this we are getting better, but slowly. As you say, I think we have a lot to thank Marcus Trescothick for in this regard.